Vince Wilfork Injury: How the Patriots Can Overcome Loss of Star DT

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Vince Wilfork Injury: How the Patriots Can Overcome Loss of Star DT
Stew Milne-USA TODAY Sports

The New England Patriots have to replace a 6'2'', 325-pound space-eating, block-devouring, run-game-disrupting monster on the interior of their quietly stingy defense. 

Vince Wilfork is "almost certainly" done for the year after tearing his Achilles' tendon, according to a source of The Boston Globe beat writer Shalise Manza Young.

Fortunately for the Patriots, a team that's dealt with its fair share of injuries to key players this season, they're 4-0 after holding on to beat the Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday Night Football 30-23.

But moving forward, New England won't have the easiest time finding a comparable stand-in for the five-time Pro Bowler who was named a first-team All-Pro in 2012. 

Let's examine how the Patriots can overcome the massive loss of their star nose tackle. 

 

Stay In-House

Backups Joe Vellano and Chris Jones are the two interior defensive linemen who'll immediately fill in for Wilfork. 

Despite Wilfork's age and size, he was used frequently. 

Somewhat of an ironman, Wilfork missed only six outings over the last 10 seasons for the Patriots.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Through the first three games of this season, he was on the field for 167 of a possible 209 defensive snaps for New England (79.9 percent), per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

Against the Falcons, Vellano logged three tackles and had one sack, one tackle for loss and one quarterback hit. 

Jones made one tackle. 

Veteran Tommy Kelly was signed in the offseason to be Wilfork's running mate and played 121 snaps before the win over Atlanta. 

While Vellano's performance in Wilfork's absence was encouraging, the Patriots will likely kick Kelly to Wilfork's spot directly over the center in three-man fronts while rotating Vellano and Jones in four-man fronts. 

Remember, Belichick runs a true hybrid defense, one with a nice blend of 4-3 and 3-4 alignments. 

 

Go The Free-Agent Route

Kyle Love, who played the last three seasons for the Patriots before being cut in May, is currently a free agent. 

Though he's not as wide and naturally disruptive as Wilfork, the former Mississippi State Bulldog is 6'1'' and a bulky 310 pounds. 

Here's how Pro Football Focus graded Love since 2011, the season in which he appeared in all 16 games and made 13 starts for New England:

Kyle Love's 2011 and 2012 Seasons
Overall Grade (Rank) Pass-Rush Grade (Rank) Run-Stopping Grade (Rank)
2011 +2.3 (45) -5.8 (148) +6.9 (11)
2012 +3.8 (38) -3.7 (131) +4.8 (14)

ProFootballFocus

Though Wilfork had his days as a prolific interior pass-rusher, he had become more of a run-plugger than anything over the past two seasons:

Vince Wilfork's 2011 and 2012 Seasons
Overall Grade Pass-Rush Grade (Rank) Run-Stopping Grade (Rank)
2011 +5.4 (28) -5.0 (146) +5.2 (15)
2012 +10.4 (11) +4.3 (23) +7.6 (12)

ProFootballFocus

Sure, the NFL is as pass-happy as ever, but there's still major value in a nose tackle who dominates the line middle of the line of scrimmage against the run, and that's precisely the type of player the elder Wilfork was from 2011 on. 

It's not easy to find a dominant pass-rushing defensive tackle on the free-agent market a quarter of the way through the regular season, but it might be in the Patriots' best interest to re-sign Love in hopes of limiting the damage the loss of Wilfork could have on the run defense. 

Ron Brace, New England's second-round pick in the 2009 draft, is available as is longtime Patriots stalwart Richard Seymour and former Pittsburgh Steelers nose tackle Casey Hampton. 

Brace logged only 92 snaps for the Patriots a season ago and was cut by the Washington Redskins this summer. 

Seymour was actually PFF's ninth-best defensive tackle against the run in 2012 with the Oakland Raiders (subscription required), while the 36-year-old Hampton was average in that department and struggled mightily as a pass-rusher. 

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

None of three seem like sure-fire candidates to be re-signed by the Patriots, but Seymour may be the most viable option as a stopgap for the rest of the 2013 campaign.

Through the first three games of the season, New England allowed 313 rushing yards to running backs and fullbacks on 80 rushes, good for a 3.9 yards-per-carry average. 

Furthermore, according to TeamRankings.com, the Patriots are doing a fantastic job inside the red zone on defense. 

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

They've allowed a touchdown on only 33.3 percent of their opponents' trips inside the 20-yard line, which is tied for the fourth-lowest percentage in the league. 

The secondary has been much improved as well, as only six teams are surrendering a lower quarterback rating than New England thus far. 

It'll be interesting to see if the loss of Wilfork has a huge negative ripple effect on a sound Patriots defense and what Belichick has up his sleeve to replace No. 75.

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